Editor’s Note: The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March some 51 years ago was seen by many historians as the “grandest hour of the civil rights movement”. It’s also seen as the last major victory of the civil rights movement. Nearly 30,000 people marched to the state capitol building in Montgomery, Alabama petitioning the government for the right to vote that was denied to so many of America’s black citizens. The marchers included East Village Magazine writer Harold C. Ford.
Three lives were sacrificed during those events in 1965–Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and Rev. James Reeb. Two were members of Ford’s chosen faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Liuzzo, the only white woman to die in the Civil Rights Movement, was a member of the Unitarian Church in Detroit; she was shot to death while escorting marchers from Montgomery to Selma following the conclusion of the march. Reeb was a Unitarian minister serving in Boston; he was clubbed to death by white racists in Selma.
Ford delivered a message to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint about his experience on April 19, 2015. We present it here as East Village Magazine‘s way of honoring the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and as a response to President-elect Donald Trump’s insults to civil rights icon John Lewis.
By Harold C. Ford
Selma Message—Part 1
Reverend C.T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference described the Selma-to-Montgomery March as “ a clear engagement between the forces of the movement and the forces which would destroy the movement…between those who wished the fullness of their personalities to be met and those that would destroy us physically and psychologically”.
The “forces that would destroy the movement” are witnessed in this letter to the Selma Times-Journal written in March of ’65:
“If the perverts from Washington, Boston, and other pink punks from the North would spend their time cleaning up the uncivil riots, murders, stabbings, prostitution, and mongrelization [read intermarriage] in their own back yard and leave the Selma situation to the city of Selma under the able protection of local law enforcement, our Republic will remain free much longer.”
On the other hand, “the forces of the movement” are revealed in this statement by a black man in Selma, Alabama speaking to the voting registrar:
“I am 65 years old, I own 100 acres of land that is paid for, I am a taxpayer, and I have 6 children. All of them is teachin’, workin’…If what I done ain’t enough to be a registered voter…then Lord have mercy on America.”
Although the 15th Amendment to the Constitution had in 1870 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, nearly a century later few black southerners had ever been allowed to cast a vote.
Blacks made up approximately half the voting-age population of Dallas County, within which Selma was located, but only 1% of voting-age blacks were allowed to vote, in contrast to 65% of whites. Just 156 of Selma’s 15,000 blacks of voting age were on the voting rolls.
Writer Stephen B. Oates deems it “the grandest hour of the civil rights movement. Never in the history of the movement had so many people of all faiths and classes come to the southern battleground itself.”
The Selma campaign—as most all of you know—culminated in a 50-mile march to the Alabama statehouse in Montgomery where a multiracial throng of some 30,000 demanded the right to vote for all. It was the largest civil rights event in the South to that time and likely remains such today.
The idea for the march was inspired by the death of African-American Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, a town near Selma; he was shot dead attempting to protect his mother and grandfather from the attack of law enforcement officers. Sound like a familiar American theme—then and now?
Why’d I Go?
If I answer that question for myself, then I likely speak to the motivation of countless others.
I’ll begin with Henry David Thoreau:
- who crystallized the concept of civil disobedience with an essay by the same name;
- who, in 1843, refused to pay a poll tax in Massachusetts because of his opposition to slavery, was arrested, and jailed;
- who campaigned against payment of federal taxes during the Mexican-American War because he deemed it an effort to extend slavery into new territory.
Listen to his words: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison…”
Flash forward to Mohandas Gandhi, a disciple of Thoreau. Gandhi expanded Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience by adding masses of people. And Gandhi cultivated relations with the mass media to further his cause.
In his biography simply titled Gandhi, author Geoffry Ashe notes that some journalists came to Gandhi “in a spirit of near-discipleship.” In 1903, Gandhi, realizing the power of the press, used his own funds to launch the weekly publication titled Indian Opinion.
Biographer Ashe notes that after the paper started, Gandhi’s relationships with white admirers and sympathizers “grew more lasting and fruitful”.
Flash forward once again to the 1950s and 1960s. It’s common knowledge that Martin Luther King was not only a man of the Christian cloth, but a disciple of Gandhi as well (and thus Thoreau). Like Gandhi, King and his followers cultivated a relationship with the media to advance their cause. Listen to the words of Rev. James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference:
The notion behind the Selma-to-Montgomery march “went back to some of the classical strategies of Gandhi…when you have a great violation of the people and there’s a great sense of injury…you have to give people an honorable means and context in which to express and eliminate that grief and speak decisively and succinctly back to the issue.”
Bevel said the Selma march was to “keep the issue of disenfranchisement before the whole nation…(to) discuss in the nation through the papers, radio, television…what the real issues were.” In a way, the Selma issue was simple: The forces of the privileged and powerful were beating the hell out of peaceful people who simply wanted the right to vote.
So there I was on Sunday, March 7, 1965…a naive 18-year old sittin’ on my sofa watchin’ TV as the disgraceful Bloody Sunday unfolded before my eyes and ears. I watched in shock as Alabama law enforcers beat and teargassed peaceful citizens at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Men, women, and children; all they wanted was the right to vote. Fifty people were injured! Sixteen went to the hospital!
It was a wakeup call, a seminal moment in my life. Suddenly the schoolhouse lessons about American democracy—the “land of the free, the home of the brave”—went crashing to the floor of this nation’s promises unfulfilled.
So the philosophies and strategies of Thoreau, Ghandi, King, and others—particularly the use of mass media—they got me! I was moved to action. In Nazi Germany, Martin Niemoller observed:
“In Germany they first came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the the Jews…the trade unionists…the Catholics…and I didn’t speak up…Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
In 1965 I was not inclined to be a “good German” who didn’t speak up.
Eldridge Cleaver said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Abraham Lincoln said, “It’s a sin to be silent when it’s your duty to protest”. I wasn’t gonna’ be part of the problem and sit in silence in Flint. I decided to go to Alabama as did thousands of other Americans.
Some rapid-fire recollections of my trip to Montgomery in 1965:
- I remember making contact with the Neuman Club of the Methodist Church, getting its encouragement and support, and making plans along with 8 other Flint-area college students to go to Montgomery. One of them was a Unitarian.
- I recall driving 17 hours straight, from Flint to Kentucky, in my $100 Ford Fairlane before I gave up the wheel. (My daddy got me that car for high school graduation; it died when I got it back to Flint.) I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid, as we all were.
- I recollect the dread as we crossed the border from Tennessee into Alabama. One of my college compatriots who’d been to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War described being more afraid crossing into Alabama than being at the Wall.
- I clearly recall reaching Montgomery, checking in with the MIA—Montgomery Improvement Association, forerunner of the SCLC—and being taught how to protect myself from a nightstick attack.
- I’d confronted for the first time the Gandhian principle of nonviolence as practiced by Dr. King and wondered whether or not I could remain nonviolent if set upon by redneck southerners. I never resolved that issue while there; and I haven’t resolved it to this day.
- I vividly remember the assignment of a local black college student to our two-car caravan to steer us to the right neighborhoods in Montgomery, not the white
- This memory is painful. Shortly after leaving the MIA headquarters, our cars stopped at an intersection and a little black girl coming down the sidewalk at dusk, seeing our white faces, cowered away and physically embraced her smaller sister as if to protect her. Our black college student direction-finder rolled down the window and shouted, “It’s okay, they’re on our side”. The little girls showed obvious relief.
- A new experience for me was being boarded in the home of a warm, accepting black family, tasting grits for the very first time.
- Our group went door-to-door in black Montgomery passing out handbills that encouraged voter registration and participation in the march upon the arrival of the Selma marchers.
- The memories of stark poverty was, perhaps, best represented by some families that still lived in homes with dirt floors.
- The racist education system was revealed by the fact that, contrary to their privileged white counterparts, black citizens had to provide the pre-school and kindergarten education not offered to black youth by Montgomery’s public school system.
- The nighttime rally before the final day’s march into Montgomery offered up the largest cavalcade of stars any of us had ever seen before or since: Harry Belafonte; Sammy Davis Jr.; Odetta; Dick Gregory; Peter, Paul, & Mary; Mahalia Jackson; Bobby Darin, Nina Simone; Alan King; Pete Seeger; Johnny Mathis; James Baldwin; Joan Baez; Leonard Bernstein; Lena Horne; Billy Eckstein; and many others.
- A particular point of pride is standing on the street corner with hundreds of others, waiting for the Selma marchers to arrive, and seeing Dr. King in person at the front of the march as he smiled and waved to us.
- We fell in behind, some 30,000 of us in all. I joined hands with a black person for the first time—a young woman from Chicago—as we marched into downtown Montgomery 16 abreast.
- The streets were lined with Alabama national guardsmen who were Alabamians, many with confederate flags sewn to their uniforms.
- I’ll never forget the searing, penetrating “hate stares” from white southerners as we passed them by.
- I recall the nervous laughter and sighs of relief as we discerned the tinny sound of a machine gun to be a toy aimed at the marchers by a small white boy.
- Three flags adorned the Montgomery state capital building: lowest to the left was the American flag; a bit higher and to the right was the Alabama state flag; highest and in the middle waved the Confederate flag.
- The rhythmic and stirring speech of Dr. King moved us all.
- I clearly recall the anxiety I felt when the speeches ended, the Guardsmen disappeared, and the marchers began emptying the streets. My gut instincts told me “someone was gonna’ get it now.”
Selma Message, Part 2
The news of Viola Liuzzo’s death reached us only a few hours after heading back home to Flint as we once again crossed the Alabama-Tennessee border in the other direction. Any joy that we felt from the 30,000 assembled in Montgomery and the soaring words of Dr. King were choked from us when we got the news on the car radio. Our hope descended into tears.
Viola’s family back in Detroit caught hell. Crosses were burned in the yard; Viola was wrongly vilified as a wanton woman that left her husband and five kids. J Edgar Hoover’s corrupt FBI spread vicious rumors about her that the family, to this day, has never fully recovered from.
However, the recent events commemorating the 50th anniversary have done so much to honor and restore her memory. Two of her daughters were honored at the UU Arc of Justice events in Alabama last month—as were surviving family members of Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb. Memorials all across the civil rights south now recognize her contributions. Just last week Ms. Liuzzo was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Wayne State University where she was a nursing student in 1965. A Detroit park named in her honor is about to receive a several hundred thousand dollar makeover. An injustice is being made right.
A final personal memory from March 1965: I will never forget the deep, penetrating fear from the start of my Selma-Montgomery experience to the end. But please know: that memory was and is always tempered by the realization that some of my fellow Americans, with darker complexions, living in certain parts of this country at that time lived with that fear every day of their lives.
Let me say to the Unitarian-Universalists gathered here this morning: You should look back at the civil rights era and the Selma-Montgomery march in particular with pride. We were there when it counted. Both Rev. Reeb and Ms. Liuzzo were Unitarians. They answered the call as did many others in our faith tradition. The courage of southern Unitarian Universalist congregations at that time—as the one in Birmingham, Alabama—was simply amazing.
And it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The blueprint for “standing on the side of love” is found every Sunday in your Order of Service, in the 7 Principles of our faith tradition.
As a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association…
…we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
…we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;
…we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
These are not empty words; these are words that define who we are, what our faith tradition stands for. You and I are the sons and daughters of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. And they are no longer with us; it is up to me and you to live out the true meaning of our faith.
So let me move toward conclusion…
Some saw Selma as the last major victory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s & 60s—and the last major victory for Dr. King. Todd Gitlin, in his book The Sixties, states quite frankly that following the Selma campaign, “His moment had passed.”
However, the legacy of Selma seems clear. The Selma-to-Montgomery March moved a wavering US Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most powerful civil rights measures in American history. Here’s some of the evidence:
- By the summer following the bill’s passage, 9,000 black citizens in Dallas County (where Selma is) had registered to vote. Racist Sheriff Jim Clark, who stood at the courthouse door to prevent blacks from voting, was voted out of office.
- Black voter registration in the US soon went up by 61% to more than 5 million voters.
- In 1965 there were only 100 black elected officials in the continental US; 100 in all of America! By 1989—only 24 years after the Voting Rights Act (VRA)—there were more than 7,200 including: 24 US Representatives; 1 state governor; 101 state senators; 315 state representatives; 9 state supreme court judges; 760 law enforcement officials; 299 city mayors; and thousands of others.
- And who can doubt the influence of the VRA upon the serious presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and ’88; or the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 and 2012?
America’s landscape has changed dramatically in the 50 years since Selma and will never be the same again. Author Charles E. Fager writes, “There have been too few Selmas in our time; we must not let them slip from our memory.”
Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.